“Children’s Literature – Overcoming the Heavy with Lightness and Ease”
Interview with Yin Jianling
Children’s literature should not always be about princes and princesses and living happily ever after, says acclaimed author Yin Jianling.
“Children’s literature should express all themes, including truth and love, as well as the gap between rich and poor, environmental pollution, war, and death. These themes that need to be explored throughout life for adults are found in many outstanding works of children’s literature,” Yin said, speaking ahead of her appearance at the 6th EU-China International Literary Festival.
Unlike general literature, Yin says, children’s literature faces a specific audience, from young children to teenagers. They have different mental levels and receptive abilities. More importantly, they are in the enlightenment stage of life. Therefore, although excellent children’s literature covers almost all themes, it uses expressions that are familiar and acceptable to children and teenagers. And even if it exposes evil in reality, it must be well-informed, so that readers will not be traumatized, she says.
Children’s literature also expresses humanity and explores life, Yin adds. Therefore, it has advantages over general literature—everything that readers of children’s literature face can be fresh. Children’s literature can discover life, explore the mystery of life, and describe the responsibility of the beauty of human affection. A person who writes for a child must be able to “face complexity and have joy in their own heart”. Only when they can write warmth in indifference, softness in evil, and hope in destruction will the children who grow up reading these works be able to “live in the mud and have a lotus in the heart, turn hell into heaven.”
This is why, Yin says, classic children’s literature often expresses the abstract themes with concrete and unique stories, vivid and childlike language, highly metaphorical and symbolic images, and oversteps the heavy with lightness and ease.
In Yin Jianling’s works, the protagonist is not always a child who lives “healthily and happily”. Examples of this are the orphan Youan in Ye Mang Po, and the deaf child Dongyin who lost his hearing in The Elephant Foot Drum.
In terms of creative intention, Yin Jianling said, “There is no absolute happiness in this world, only relative ones, just as there is no absolute perfection. Stories are often born in adversity, and compassion is also one of the reasons for the existence of literature. Children need joy and happiness, but it is more necessary to experience the great joy after going through the ups and downs. You cannot appreciate the preciousness of light if a candle is lit in a bright room.”
Yin Jianling is therefore more willing to provide stories about the unfamiliarization of finding light in the dark in her works that open a door for contemporary young readers to interpret the world and the future.
“Growth literature” and YA (young adult) literature is aimed at readers between the ages of 13 and 17. It comprises different genres, including fiction and non-fiction, poetry, fantasy literature, etc., and covers a wide range of topics, such as growth issues and family issues, social issues, wars, etc.
Readers of growth literature are often in a turbulent phase of adolescence, Yin says. This is a special period of life, full of doubts about the world and self, complex changes, and confusion.
Yin Jianling’s works, such as the novel Paper Man (1999) and the epistle essay To the Future You: Fifteen Letters to Girls are typical examples of growth literature. Due to the boldness and frankness of the theme in Paper Man (writing about the sexual psychological growth of girls), and the lack of similar works in China, it found a high number of readers among a generation of girls who were growing up. In response, they explored themselves through the story, gained company, and found answers to some of the puzzles in life.
To the Future You: Fifteen Letters to Girls was written in 2013. Fifteen letters were used to talk with readers in the way of storytelling. Almost all of these stories are Yin Jianling’s personal experiences because she believes in emotion and eternal human nature, even if it is not about the current life. She says the commonality of life experience will still arouse the sense of substitution of modern readers. The themes covered range from the body to self-recognition, to beauty and love, some of which may be embarrassing or difficult for a parent to discuss with their child. What’s interesting is that this book has not only become a pillow book for girls, but also a bridge between parents and daughters.
Yin Jianling recognizes the innate differences between the two genders in biological and social attributes. It is precisely because of this difference between men and women that the world presents a rich, diverse, balanced and harmonious appearance. But it is notable that even pure growth novels for girls like Paper Man have found many young male readers too. As an author, Yin Jianling said that although she cannot tell precisely why boys also like these books, she said that any author who creates a work does not want just male readers or female readers to read it. The more the merrier.
Of course, it is impossible for an author to experience all the things described in their own work, but they should have the ability to transform the experience of others into their own experience, Yin said. In essence, it boils down to compassion, she said. If a male writer writes about a boy’s growth process, it might be more vivid, but it’s also okay for a female writer to try, she believes. For instance, Yin Jianling’s historical novel Ye Mang Po is about the spiritual growth history of a boy who pursued himself a hundred years ago.
Literature and Education
Many parents may feel that education is the sole responsibility of the school, but Yin Jianling has always believed that the core responsibility for education should be borne by the family. Making children learn to socialize and get along with others in a group is an important function of the school, and the family is the school for the children throughout their lives. In terms of family education, parents have a special advantage, which is not only to give their children material nutrition, but more importantly, to give their children emotional education by treating their children as independent, free, and equal individuals, and then help them, and then education them. Adults need spiritual comfort, children are weaker, and they may need more emotional support than adults. Real education is not “mind education” but “spiritual education”, she says.
When children are young, Yin Jianling especially advocates parents and children reading together. She also admires the “scholastic campus” which is being promoted by many schools. Literature is useless, but literature is also useful, she says. The greatest use is to give children emotional education and spiritual comfort. A child can learn about the broader world and the truth of life in literature. Even if the world and life are not beautiful, they can still love it from the bottom of their heart, and then walk the future path they choose steadily and firmly.
You are welcome to join the 6th EU-China International Literary Festival, held online from November 27th to December 19th, 2021, exploring the theme “Through Women’s Eyes-Reading Between the Lines”.